The prime minister has abandoned his previous attitude to drug policy. Does power do this to people?

Here is a piece of news that you may have missed, and with good reason.  It’s not really news at all. The documentary sounds admirable, and its trailer has this to say, with which I heartily agree:

“The war on drugs has been raging for 40 years. Over a trillion dollars has been spent, millions of people imprisoned, and countless thousands killed. The illegal drug market is worth $330-400 billion per year, drugs are cheaper and more prevalent than ever before, and in a growing number of countries drug cartels are the major threat to national security. Yet our governments carry on regardless.”

But the article states:

“In this ground breaking film a number of past Presidents, among them Presidents Clinton and Carter, stand up to be counted, admitting they got it wrong and trying to make amends before it’s too late. We follow the Global Commission On Drugs Policy on a mission to break the political taboo, explore the controversial solutions and bravely demand a new agenda.”

Ground breaking, eh? Past presidents have for some time now admitted that the war on drugs has failed. What would be news would be if some currently serving Presidents and Prime Ministers were to say the same thing, rather than waiting for the safety of retirement to do so. But the truth is that every politician who hopes to be re-elected knows two things: first, that the war on drugs has failed; and second, that to say so would be electoral suicide.

One such is David Cameron. The Prime Minister, not very long ago, was on the side of reform. But that was before he was Prime Minister or even leader of his party. Back in 2005  he seemed to think that present policy needed an overhaul, and said:

“Politicians attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies and calling for crackdown after crackdown. Drugs policy has been failing for decades.”

Perhaps office has changed his mind? But when he leaves office, will he change it back again? The trouble is, by then it will be too late. We do not need retired politicians to tell us how wrong they got it. We need our current ones to act.

Mr Cameron has, some would say, shown remarkable political daring in espousing the cause of gay marriage, which does not strike most people as a naturally conservative policy. It is a pity he has not tackled the question of the drugs, which would by no means win widespread applause, and taken the sort of steps that have borne fruit in Portugal. Here is one area where he really could make a difference. But one assumes that he is too frightened of the ruling opinion that the drugs war is, if not being won, at least winnable. But twenty years from now, you can expect Dave to be doing a Clinton and Carter, telling us that he got it wrong, and how enlightenment came only in retirement.

It was once a mark of great Tory politicians to challenge the consensus: remember Peel and the Corn Laws? Or Shaftesbury and the Factory Acts? These men were Tories, and fought hard for what they believed in, against the consensus of the day. So did that other great Tory leader, Churchill. But Cameron, who seems to be no Conservative, is not much of a leader either. And so the misery caused by the unwinnable war on drugs continues.